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Right Turn: THE DECLINE OF THE DEMOCRATS AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN POLITICS by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers (Hill & Wang: $16.95; 229 pp.) : The Rise of the Counter-Establishment by Sidney Blumenthal (Times Books: $19.95; 343 pp.)

September 14, 1986|P. Phillips | Phillips is a commentator for CBS Spectrum and National Public Radio and author of "Post Conservative America" (Random House). and

NEITHER OF THESE TOMES is destined to be beach-reading material for the all-too-little that remains of summer, 1986. Yet both should interest political aficionados as examples of an emerging literary species of belated attempts by liberals to explain the conservative triumphs of the last two decades while still in some respects minimizing the significance of what happened.

In point of fact, all three authors--Sidney Blumenthal of "The Rise of the Counter-Establishment" and Joel Rogers and Thomas Ferguson of "Right Turn"--share elements of a common thesis. They are more than willing to admit the fallibilities of the Democratic Party; what they balk at recognizing is the rightish upheaval in both the American electorate and in public opinion, especially over the last 10 years or so. And it's this disinclination that leads them to their respective analyses of elites and interest groups, worth attention in their own right and also possibly as a budding genre.

Rogers and Ferguson, political scientists and joint authors of "The Political Economy" column in The Nation magazine, contend that since national voting patterns began their late-1960s-down-to-the-present upheaval, the United States has not had a realignment of voter sentiment. What we have had instead is a rearrangement of "patterns of interest-group alignment and coalitions among major (economic) investors" in the political system.

Sidney Blumenthal takes a somewhat similar position in "The Rise of the Counter-Establishment." Now a writer for the Washington Post but previously Boston bureau chief for "In These Times," an independent socialist journal, Blumenthal suggests that U.S. politics has experienced "a realignment of elites, not the much-heralded conventional realignment of the electorate." What engages his attention is precisely what his title suggests: the rise of a "counter-establishment" of conservative economists, think-tankers, magazine editors, political consultants, electoral mobilizers and other savants generally united by opposition to strong government and governmental power.

For all that the two books have in dissimilarities as well as agreements, it's not unfair to venture two sweeping criticisms. All of the authors tend to underestimate the role of public percipience--and thus the wisdom of the rank-and-file American electorate--in figuring out what was wrong with 1960s liberalism before almost anyone else did. And anti-Democratic landslides of 1968, 1972, 1980 and 1984 do display a certain electoral relentlessness (to say nothing of a considerable presidential-level voting realignment). Conversely, the authors overestimate the role of elites, a not uncommon bias in the rather elite world of major universities and media. Of course, a fair rejoinder in their favor is that it's difficult to write about elites without getting a bit carried away (bear in mind, by way of ecumenicalism, the kindred 1970s pre-occupation with elites of conservative commentators on the Earl Warren era federal judiciary or David Rockefeller's Trilateral Commission). So while the Blumenthal-Rogers-Ferguson elites are rather overdrawn in terms of influence, the portraiture has some utility.

To "Right Turn" authors Rogers and Ferguson, the evolution of America's move to the right in the 1970s and 1980s is almost neo-Marxian in its economic genesis. Inflationary devastations were a key force in pushing the old New Deal coalition economic interest groups--ranging from Texas oilmen and Sun Belt developers to New York investment banking firms--toward a more conservative posture. This, the authors say, either took them out of the Democratic Party or made them an increasingly conservative force within it, which undercut the party's ability to voice an appealing message to its traditional constituency. There's undoubtedly some truth to this, and for those disposed to pursuit, Rogers and Ferguson repeatedly cite and list the scores of oilmen, investment bankers and corporate chiefs who ever gave money to the Democratic National Committee, attended a cocktail party with Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter or served on a presidential commission appointed by L. B. J. I am not sure the significance is quite that Machiavellian.

From an overall standpoint, the trouble with "Right Turn" is simply that it's too unidimensional. After all, shifting interest group economic loyalties are only one of the phenomena involved in the upheaval of U.S. politics over the last two decades. Among the others: race, welfare and crime, Vietnam, Watergate, George Wallace, Christian fundamentalism and the rise of the Religious Right, public revulsion against the "Wimping of America" syndrome perceived by many voters in episodes ranging from the Panama Canal treaties of 1977 to the 1979-80 Iranian hostages crisis, and so on. Rogers and Ferguson barely get into these subjects. Blumenthal, in "The Rise of the Counter-Establishment," reaches further, but still falls well short.

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